“How Would Cuban Do It?”
By Jenna Lee
Unlike Billy Wilder, I never knew Earnst Lubitsch, nor did I ever hear him speak. Ergo, the sign above my office door reads, “How would Cuban do it?” So when my Linked-in email came saying that Mark Cuban posted a piece, I had to check it out. His piece was called “YouTube Mobile vs YouTube on Your TV and the Impact of TrueView”, (only Mark Cuban could get away with a title like that). In the opening of his first paragraph he casually makes the following point: “… YouTube has done a great job of training its users.” … … I found this statement bone-chilling. Not that I think Mr. Cuban meant anything besides sharing and clarifying the great news about YouTube. But I can’t help but feel all people, everywhere, are deliberately being taught addictive behavior that is geared to manage individual focus. Mobile devices are the new ‘crack’.
If people can be taught in unison to continually focus on a virtual world, no matter where they go, they won’t bother looking too closely at what is happening to the actual world around them. And maybe no one will notice that all of the Free Press is going extinct, much like the dinosaur. Or perhaps all “whistle-blowers”, like Bradley Manning, Deric Lostutter and Edward Snowden, may end up persecuted heroes who die in jail having no more affect on the human psyche than the seed of a dandelion being blown into oblivion by the wind. Simply pull focus and everything ugly disappears. What a brilliant way to control the masses.
Even if this issue of controlling the masses through mobile access to online content has not yet been thought of, it absolutely will be, by somebody much smarter than I am, in the near future. “When?” is the only question left to be answered. Or is that happening right now?
I wonder who thought up the name “Shark Tank”? It’s not “To Be or Not to Be” but it’s a great title!
Weighing What Works Against What’s Best For Us
By Nicole Stark:
In the conversation of success and human development, certain actions work, many actions even, but weighing the cost of what works against what’s good for us is a practice of mastery. Many things work, cocaine works, the real question is, is whatever we are doing, does it both work and is it what’s best for us?
In order to pursue, and then sustain, any kind of excellence, more sophistication is necessary in how we evaluate our personal success and the success in the world around us. It is easy for us to fall into the trap of what simply “works” as we seek specific results, like weight loss for example. Most people can find a way to achieve that particular result, but not everyone will examine the consequences or practices taken to produce that result. Do we simply want to be thin (at all costs) or are we also interested in building a more healthy and strong body that will serve us far beyond appearance? Are there more profound, sustaining results that we have not thought about or are yet unrecognized? If there are, are we interested in what might be more complex or more powerful action? And if we are interested, how does this confront, complicate or deepen our achievement strategy?
As an immediate and mostly unreflective culture, we are prone to seek fast, external results. Although the results we produce typically meet social and professional expectations, they mostly skip the self-challenge that is fundamental in establishing the truly exceptional path for ourselves, our projects and for the people around us.
Beyond the Brain
By David Brooks
It’s a pattern as old as time. Somebody makes an important scientific breakthrough, which explains a piece of the world. But then people get caught up in the excitement of this breakthrough and try to use it to explain everything.
This is what’s happening right now with neuroscience. The field is obviously incredibly important and exciting. From personal experience, I can tell you that you get captivated by it and sometimes go off to extremes, as if understanding the brain is the solution to understanding all thought and behavior.
This is happening at two levels. At the lowbrow level, there are the conference circuit neuro-mappers. These are people who take pretty brain-scan images and claim they can use them to predict what product somebody will buy, what party they will vote for, whether they are lying or not or whether a criminal should be held responsible for his crime.
At the highbrow end, there are scholars and theorists that some have called the “nothing buttists.” Human beings are nothing but neurons, they assert. Once we understand the brain well enough, we will be able to understand behavior. We will see the chain of physical causations that determine actions. We will see that many behaviors like addiction are nothing more than brain diseases. We will see that people don’t really possess free will; their actions are caused by material processes emerging directly out of nature. Neuroscience will replace psychology and other fields as the way to understand action.
These two forms of extremism are refuted by the same reality. The brain is not the mind. It is probably impossible to look at a map of brain activity and predict or even understand the emotions, reactions, hopes and desires of the mind.
The first basic problem is that regions of the brain handle a wide variety of different tasks. As Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld explained in their compelling and highly readable book, “Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience,” you put somebody in an fMRI machine and see that the amygdala or the insula lights up during certain activities. But the amygdala lights up during fear, happiness, novelty, anger or sexual arousal (at least in women). The insula plays a role in processing trust, insight, empathy, aversion and disbelief. So what are you really looking at?
Then there is the problem that one activity is usually distributed over many different places in the brain. In his book, “Brain Imaging,” the Yale biophysicist Robert Shulman notes that we have this useful concept, “working memory,” but the activity described by this concept is widely distributed across at least 30 regions of the brain. Furthermore, there appears to be no dispersed pattern of activation that we can look at and say, “That person is experiencing hatred.”
Then there is the problem that one action can arise out of many different brain states and the same event can trigger many different brain reactions. As the eminent psychologist Jerome Kagan has argued, you may order the same salad, but your brain activity will look different, depending on whether you are drunk or sober, alert or tired.
Then, as Kagan also notes, there is the problem of meaning. A glass of water may be more meaningful to you when you are dying of thirst than when you are not. Your lover means more than your friend. It’s as hard to study neurons and understand the flavors of meaning as it is to study Shakespeare’s spelling and understand the passions aroused by Macbeth.
Finally, there is the problem of agency, the problem that bedevils all methods that mimic physics to predict human behavior. People are smokers one day but quit the next. People can change their brains in unique and unpredictable ways by shifting the patterns of their attention.
What Satel and Lilienfeld call “neurocentrism” is an effort to take the indeterminacy of life and reduce it to measurable, scientific categories.
Right now we are compelled to rely on different disciplines to try to understand behavior on multiple levels, with inherent tensions between them. Some people want to reduce that ambiguity by making one discipline all-explaining. They want to eliminate the confusing ambiguity of human freedom by reducing everything to material determinism.
But that is the form of intellectual utopianism that always leads to error. An important task these days is to harvest the exciting gains made by science and data while understanding the limits of science and data. The next time somebody tells you what a brain scan says, be a little skeptical. The brain is not the mind.
To Get a Truce, Be Ready to Escalate
By WESLEY K. CLARK
FOLLOWING the Obama administration’s conclusion last week that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons, the talk in Washington is all about military assistance to Syria’s rebels. That aid is necessary, but observers have overlooked a crucial point: the American decision to give rebels lethal aid, though it might eventually contribute to the overthrow of Mr. Assad, opens an opportunity for concerted diplomacy to end the bloodshed.
President Obama’s decision to supply small arms and ammunition to the rebels is a step, possibly just the first, toward direct American intervention. It raises risks for all parties, and especially for Mr. Assad, who knows that he cannot prevail, even with Russian and Iranian military aid, if the United States becomes fully engaged. We used a similar strategy against the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo in 1999, where I commanded American forces, and showed that NATO had the resolve to escalate. With a brutal dictator like Mr. Assad, only the knowledge that he cannot prevail will force him to negotiate an exit.
Mr. Obama has sought a diplomatic solution for some time, but has been reluctant to take steps that might lead to military intervention. Rightly so. No one wants more death and disruption in the Middle East, nor another open-ended military commitment — and certainly not the Pentagon. Despite the humanitarian tragedy in Syria, most of the conditions that have allowed previous interventions to succeed are absent. Legal authorization from the United Nations is unlikely, given opposition from Russia and China. Syria’s rebels are fragmented politically and militarily; some are religious extremists with professed ties to Al Qaeda.
What would follow Mr. Assad’s departure is unclear, which is why he has managed to retain support from Shiites and other minorities, besides his own Alawite sect, who fear the consequences of a Sunni-led takeover. Iranian agents, along with their allies from Hezbollah, are involved, as are the Russians, who have a naval port at Tartus.
But inaction is not an option. The bloodletting — more than 90,000 are estimated to have died so far — has deepened the region’s longstanding Shiite-Sunni struggle. It has become a proxy war, with Sunni Arab states backed by the West, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, challenging Iran’s reach to the Mediterranean via a proxy, Hezbollah, and Syria.
The risk of going beyond lethal aid to establishing a no-fly zone to keep Mr. Assad’s planes grounded or safe zones to protect refugees — options under consideration in Washington — is that we would find it hard to pull back if our side began losing. Given the rebels’ major recent setbacks, can we rule out using air power or sending in ground troops?
Yet the sum total of risks — higher oil prices, a widening war — also provide Syria (and its patrons, Iran and Russia) a motive to negotiate. If Mr. Obama can convince Iran that he is serious, and is ready to back up his new promise of aid with additional forces, Iran and Russia will know the risks: Mr. Assad could lose his regime, and most likely his life. Higher oil prices would cost China, which has blocked anti-Syrian initiatives at the United Nations, dearly.
In 1999 in Kosovo, the West used force as leverage for diplomacy. There, a limited NATO air campaign began after diplomatic talks failed to halt Serbian ethnic cleansing. The bombing lasted 72 days, and plans for a ground invasion of Serbia were under way when Mr. Milosevic finally bowed to the inevitable.
Of course, the Middle East is not the Balkans, the Russian government is more confident now than it was then, and Americans are tired after a decade of war. But there are similarities: The Kosovars, too, bickered among themselves, and some were said to be terrorists. The Russians backed Serbia — and at one point suggested that their naval fleet in the Black Sea would intervene. Like Mr. Assad, Mr. Milosevic was rational and calculating — he, too, wanted to survive.
Mr. Assad knows that Mr. Obama can be surprisingly resolute, as in his approval of drone strikes and the military operation to kill Osama bin Laden. While the United States begins to supply the rebels, there is a crucial opening for talks. Russia or China could recalculate and help lead Syria to a real peace process, as Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, a former Russian prime minister, did in Kosovo in 1999. Iran could emerge from a truce with Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon (and its strong links to Iran) intact.
The formula for diplomacy is clear: a cease-fire agreement; a United Nations presence; departure of foreign fighters; disarmament of Syrian fighters; international supervision of Syria’s military; a peaceful exit for Mr. Assad, his family and key supporters; a transitional government; and plans for a new Syria.
The conflict, and the diplomacy needed to end it, are likely to play out simultaneously. All parties will be recalculating their options and risks, so any assurance Mr. Obama gives Americans that he will limit our engagement would reduce the chances of success. This is a nerve-racking time, but the consequences of inaction are too high. Working together, America, Russia and China can halt Syria’s agony and the slide toward wider conflict. Mr. Obama’s decision might be the catalyst to get that done.
(Wesley K. Clark, a retired Army general and former NATO supreme allied commander for Europe, is a senior fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles. )
Is Democratic Criticism on N.S.A. Hurting Obama’s Approval Rating?
By Nate Silver
A series of recent polls show President Obama’s approval rating at about 46 percent on average. This is somewhat lower than it was in late May, when it averaged 48 percent or 49 percent.
Has the shift been caused by the dominant news story of the last two weeks — the disclosures about the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance programs? That’s tough to say since presidential approval ratings rarely provide unambiguous interpretations as to cause and effect. Mr. Obama received a series of mediocre approval numbers toward the very end of May, after we wrote our last story about his approval ratings, but before the N.S.A. disclosures. It’s possible that the cumulative effect of stories like the White House’s handing of the attacks on Benghazi, Libya, and the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups was weighing some on Mr. Obama’s numbers. It’s possible that the consumer mood about the economy, which has been on an upswing in recent months and may have helped Mr. Obama to stave off an approval-rating decline, has become slightly less chipper. And it’s possible that some or much of this is just statistical noise.
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